Religious Experience

For the past number of summers I have helped to organize some Friday night events for my church. We have abandoned the traditional model of ‘summer bible school’ were kids come during the day and learn verses, sing and do crafts. Instead we have hoped to create a more inter-generational experience gathering around a campfire for a less more formal time while still trying to be engaging across the ages.

In any event there is usually a small group time where people get together and share or work on a project. Last night people gathered to talk about an early and formative experience of God. After the small group sharing I asked if anyone wanted to share their responses with the whole group. There tends not to be a flood to the microphone. Three people did share (including myself) and I found the cross-section quite illuminating. One man shared about a road trip he took with his parents to Alberta. It was there that he saw the Rocky Mountains and Lake Louise. He said the experience almost moved him to tears as he wondered how something so beautiful existed and what that told him about the world and God. A woman shared about her experience at a youth conference. This was a bi-national event and so for worship there thousands gathered together. This experience also deeply moved her to reflect on things greater than herself. Finally I shared. My experience was from early grade school. It was the year they handed out those little red Gideon Bibles that contained the New Testament and the Psalms (I heard they still do this in some public schools). I remember being alone in my room and at the back of my Bible it talked about the commitment that God calls people to in the Bible. There was a place you could sign your name if you wanted to make that commitment. I can’t actually remember if I signed my name or not but I remember being alone and experiencing a sense of commitment. I have tried to neither under- or over-emphasize this event but the reality is that it remains fixed in my memory.

What I found interesting about the sharing is that one was focused on an experience in relationship to nature. The second was in response to a gathering of people. And the third was alone removed from nature and people. This was helpful for me because I tend to downplay and even be suspicious of people who talk highly of encountering God in nature. I have also found it intriguing that in the Mennonite churches in this area that I am in contact with I find that when I ask people about their faith they most often talk about the church (that is the people around them) as opposed to a relationship with God. Both of these expressions strike me as secondary as flowing from something more primary. It is easy to see now why Kierkegaard resonates so strongly with me. For him our very nature or selfhood is established in the God-self relationship. There is nothing prior to that and everything else flows from it. I suspect what I need to explore or be more open to is the manner in which this primary relationship is formed. Or is it even helpful to talk about a primary relationship. Is life too complex and layered to think that I can reduce or strip away other factors and influences so that I can be alone before God? Or is this God-self relationship a discipline in which I delineate the role of nature and neighbour to be secondary and therefore these influences are neither a cause of anxiety or fear when they appear threatening or uncertain and neither are they a false sense of security when they appear stable and generous.

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